A Global Problem Calls for Collective Action
For the second time in two decades, an international crisis looms over access to medicines. A small number of wealthy nations, including the United States, have spent billions of dollars locking up early supplies of the most promising novel coronavirus vaccines. If the United States exercises its option to buy 500 million more doses of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine, 94 percent of the projected supply of the first immunization authorized for public use will be spoken for through the end of 2021. By one recent estimate, nations representing just one-seventh of the world’s population have already reserved more than half of all the promising vaccine supplies. According to leaked internal documents, funding and supply concerns have placed COVAX, the global initiative to share coronavirus vaccines, at “very high” risk of failure.
A fight over coronavirus vaccines would hardly be the first to rise from unequal access to medical treatments. Not too long ago, AIDS ravaged poor nations that were priced out of the market for lifesaving medications. The resolution to that crisis transformed global health, pumping billions of aid dollars into researching and developing treatments for the world’s poor and creating new donor-funded institutions to deliver those treatments. That restructuring, however, helped seed this latest battle over coronavirus vaccines—a collective action problem that aid dollars and public-private partnerships cannot resolve on their own.